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Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 1 – The Great Wall to Datong – 461km

Syd Stelvio, Peking to Paris 24 | Day 1 – The Great Wall to Datong – 461km

The sun broke slowly over Beijing this morning, as the rays felt their way through the smog, as I imagine they do most mornings. The early light shone down on something slightly different on this day though, as in a corner of the capital there were the first stirrings of an event that has been somewhat missing in action since it’s last occurrence in 2019. It has been five long years since then, five long years of cancellations and postponement of what may just be one of the greatest motorsport challenges on the planet. We all know the reasons for the difficulties experienced in getting the latest chapter of the Peking to Paris Motoring Challenge on the move, and in comparison, the tragedies that some have experienced in the wake of Covid and conflict, motorsport pales into insignificance. But nevertheless, for the competitors and the fans of this incredible and intriguing challenge, today marked the end of a long wait.

The Chinese aren’t short of a proverb or two, proverbs such as ‘xiǎo bù rěn zé luàn dà móu’, which translates to ‘a little impatience will spoil great plans’, and there has been more than a little patience needed for everyone involved in the 2022 Peking to Paris Motor Challenge. That’s right, 2022, as that’s when it should have run, but early this morning engines fired into life and the cars moved together towards the ceremonial start in the shadow of the Great Wall of China. The clamour amongst the locals for the event had been unending since the cars had arrived in Beijing. The makeshift paddock in front of the Shangri La hotel had been full of people swarming around the cars and the competitors, from sunup to sundown, and even after. Indeed, there were still people taking selfies with the beautiful array of machines as late as midnight, and as early as 4am this morning, who knows, perhaps they had been there all night.

The same was true at the Great Wall, with a wonderful turnout of people eagerly awaiting the start of this tremendous rally, after half an hour of wonderful entertainment with drumming, dancing Temple Dogs and Dragons. The honour of being the first out of the traps went to HERO-ERA Chairman Tomas de Vargas Machuca, who alongside Co-Driver and Royal Automobile Club Chairman Ben Cussons, took to the route in the oldest car on the event, the colossal 1914 American LaFrance, that they hope will carry them the 14500 km to Paris in 37 days’ time.

They, and most others made the start with few issues, but there had been some trouble for Boris Zeirmans and John Ziermans, who arrived at the start with collapsed suspension on the Citroen DS after rupturing the hydraulic line to the shocks, putting the sweep crews into immediate action, and after a two hour operation the spanners prevailed and a fix was made, and the French Fancy was back into the event, albeit a long way behind.

The sun was properly up by now, and it was hot, really hot, with some crews getting air temperature readings that began with a four and a government issued warning in place for high temperatures across the region. This was beginning to exacerbate problems with the poor fuel supplied by the local gas stations, causing most of the field to suffer at one point or another. Others were having more serious issues, with car 40, the Ford de Luxe of Jan Pettersson and Carl Pettersson overheating within 70 km of the start, with suspected head gasket problems. Car 6, the Ford A Tudor Taxi ended up needing a taxi of its own, as gearbox issues forced Hernan Levy and Felipe Ledermann to get the machine recovered to a workshop for a fix.

All of this, and we hadn’t even really made it to the first competitive section of the rally, with plenty of distance still to travel on a day that was a total length of 461 km. The first regularity arrived shortly after a passage control at Jimingyi, a walled town from the Ming Dynasty that at one time would have had a standing of great importance. As we pulled off the motorway just before it, the newer image of this town stood largely empty, tall tower blocks perhaps not even finished, behind a faded billboard that promised brighter futures.

The regularity ran through parts of an older settlement, in a much more rural setting, and thanks to an enforced re-route took a turn through some incredibly tight and narrow streets, with the locals looking on with a mix of bemusement and wonderment on their faces. There were grins on the faces of others as they emerged from the labyrinth of streets back into the countryside, such as Max Bauer and Gilles Bindels, grinning from ear to ear after successfully navigating through the village in their Bentley 3½.

Some dirt roads followed, a sign of things to come and more transit to get us across country and into the mountains for the second regularity of the event. Some may have been wanting to ease into the event, but the run over the Wanjiawan Danxia landform (a mountain to you and I), that took the cars through and then high above the dried up Sangan River bed, was a tricky navigation, on largely unsealed roads, the reward for which was tremendous views across the entire region. This climb was perhaps where the issues being caused by the combination of heat and poor fuel was most keenly felt, with several cars stopping at various points on the way up.

It wasn’t just the competitors in trouble up here, either. One of the media trucks, with Captain Chaos himself, Gary Williams, inside blew a tire on the climb, leading to a precarious wheel change on the soft slopes of the mountain. Not to be outdone, Arrive and Drive head honcho Mark O’ Donnell, driving another media machine, decided to rip the wheel arch out of his Landcruiser. Details of how this misdemeanour occurred are sketchy at present, with a rumour that Mark has sworn his all-Italian film crew to silence, and what happens in the truck stays in the truck.

Elsewhere Patrick and Pam Watts were enjoying driving around China so much that they went for a lovely little detour on one of the highways, clearly determined to pack as much into their day as possible and Katarina Kyvalova and Jon Minshaw were also covering extra miles in the HERO-ERA 1, an ‘Engineered by Prodrive’ Mustang Fastback, with a string of missed slots, either that or they were just enjoying overtaking the big Roller crewed by Nigel Keen and son Dominic Keen, who they seemed to constantly have to come back past after their errors.

Still, they had clearly managed to keep the mistakes to the transit sections, as the pair posted a day best of one second of penalty across the two regs and top the classic category ahead of Tobias and Silvia Koenig, and Bill and Cathy Gill who are tied in second place. Out front overall is Carlos Rieder and Urs Schnuriger in a Ford Model A Coupe, followed by Manuel Dubs and Luca Arrigucci in the fabulous ex-Swiss Post van, a specially built Ford that is the only one of the 50 built left in the world. A clean sweep of Fords completes the top three, with Pierre Gerber and Alice Leuenberger taking the final podium position as it stands.

Of course, talk of positions is purely academic at the end of the first of 37 days, and for some the positions will never be as important as simply making it to the finish in Paris, and that is an ambition best taken a day at a time. It has been a long day, with plenty of Kilometers and a very early start, so not needing to be on the road util 8:30am tomorrow feels like a little bit of luxury, and with that, it is time to turn in for the evening.

Until tomorrow.


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